by Fred Warren
“Y’say we’re supposed to light-finger these onto the marks?” Charlie Lone favored Smith with the incredulous glare of a child who might have just been told that gravity makes things fall upward. The other orphans in Smith’s gaggle remained silent, but they looked on with keen curiosity. Un-picking pockets was a novel concept, indeed.
“That’s right. Think of it as lifting in reverse. Each mark will be wearing a golden pin or brooch shaped like a spider. Slip the parcels into their shopping bags, one per customer, but take care you’re not seen doing it, the same as you would when conducting business the usual way.”
“Why should anybody care that we’re giving them something they want?”
“Some people might be upset there aren’t enough for everyone.”
“It still sounds screwy to me. What are we getting out of this?”
“Enough credits to keep your stomach full for a good long time, Charlie m’boy, and the Enforcers off our backs. Just do as I’ve told you, and all will be well.”
Charlie frowned, then lifted one of the palm-sized cubes to his ear and gave it a shake.
“It doesn’t feel like there’s anything inside. What is it?”
“None of your business. It’s…delicate. If you break it, we won’t get paid.” Smith took the parcel and stuffed it into the stained cloth satchel slung over the boy’s shoulder. “Right. Take the long way back once you’ve delivered all your parcels. If you’ve not found all the marks in an hour, drop whatever’s left at the fishmonger’s stall. Everybody clear?”
“Yes, Smith,” they chorused.
“Brilliant. Off to the marketplace with you, ones and twos, and keep a cheery look about you. Kate’ll have something special waiting when you return.”
Kate nodded. “Something sweet.”
They all paused for a moment, mouths agape, then scrambled away down the corridor en masse, pushing, shoving, and chattering gleefully.
“Ones and twos!” Smith called halfheartedly after them. “And have a care with those parcels!” He looked over at Kate and shrugged. “What’s the use?”
“She tugged her tattered coat tighter around her body. “I don’t like this. We should be going with them.”
“Wallace didn’t leave me any choice.”
“We all could have bolted. Found another hiding place.”
“He knows the nether corridors as well as I do. He’d be onto us before we settled the first wee one in her cradle. And he’s got a Peacekeeper backing him up now. You know what will happen to the children if we’re taken. We have to do things his way, for now.”
“No good can come of working with Wallace Beadle. What’s in those boxes, anyhow?” Her eyes narrowed. “Snowdrift? Lightshow?”
“Wallace wouldn’t say. I don’t think it’s drugs. They’re cold to the touch and far too light to be packed with anything heavier than aerogel. I’m thinking it’s egg sacs or dormant larvae. Exotic treats for the upper decks, as if they haven’t enough to eat already.”
“Smuggling is smuggling. If the children are caught, there’s no hope of even the orphanage. They’d be better off dead.”
“They won’t be caught, I promise. Like Charlie said, even if someone notices, they won’t care about our lot giving rather than taking, and the marks want these parcels badly. This’ll be the easiest run we’ve ever had.”
Smith stared into the dark corridor that had already swallowed the children. The easiest run ever. He almost believed it himself.
A leg shot out and hooked Charlie’s foot, sending him sprawling. He pushed himself upright and dusted off his hands and knees, wincing at a scraped palm but heedless of one more rip in his trousers among a dozen others. He reached into his satchel to ensure all six of his assigned parcels were still there. One, two, three, four…uh, oh. Two were leaking something cold and sticky. He pulled them out and tried to smooth the crumpled cubes into shape, but there was no way to hide the tears or the ooze staining their brown paper wrapping. The marks would be angry to find them this way.
He looked up and down the corridor. He was alone. He pushed the damaged parcels beneath a bag of rubbish leaning against the corridor wall and sprinted after his fellows.